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A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?

flamesStudents who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?

Sunada replies:The thing about emotions, especially strong ones like anger, is that they seem to come up in an instant, leaving no room for us to do anything about them. So for example, we realize we snapped at someone only after we recognize that we’re angry. It seems impossible to do anything about them, doesn’t it?

But actually, emotions are habits we’ve taken on, and can be undone, believe it not. So there are ways we can learn to avoid those outbursts altogether. Buddhist sages who spent entire lifetimes studying the mind through meditation saw that our emotional responses come in two parts. The first is what’s called feelings – the initial sensation in our gut in reaction to something. Let’s say we hear a bird song. We immediately sense it as pleasant (e.g. we find it soothing to hear birds), unpleasant (e.g. we’re annoyed that it woke us up too early in the morning), or neutral (e.g. it just happens to be part of the sounds around us that we note, with no particular associations of pleasant or unpleasant). This is the part that comes up automatically and beyond our control.

What happens next, though, is the part that’s within the realm of our free will. In response to our pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, we react with emotions, which are then quickly followed by thoughts and actions. For example, in response to the pleasant bird song, we feel happy and soothed, which them determines what we do next – like open the window wider and listen more closely. If the bird song is unpleasant, we might get annoyed and frustrated, and then maybe fantasize about getting out a shotgun and shooting the bird out of the tree! (I’ll skip the neutral example because it’s not very interesting in relation to what we’re talking about). Notice that the initial stimulus, the bird song, was the same in both cases, but our emotions, thoughts, and actions can go in very different directions based on our circumstances, associations, etc.

These emotions are actually conditioned, not automatic, responses. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs. We develop habits to respond in certain ways in reaction to those circumstances. There is a gap (often imperceptible I admit) between our initial feelings and our emotional responses. The trick is to become more aware of that gap, and notice our thoughts and choices while there. Then we can start to make changes that begin the process of undoing our longstanding habits, like a tendency toward anger.

Try this next time you meditate. Just sit and observe as you take in all the stimuli that comes in through your five senses. Note how you experience them as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral – but then also note how quickly your mind jumps to the next step. You don’t need to try to stop or change your reactions, just note them for now. It’s like making our thoughts go in slow motion. The more we practice in this way, the easier it will become to notice our reactions in the context of our everyday lives. We can ask ourselves – what happens, really, when we get angry? What was the triggering condition, assumption, thought, etc. that sent us in that direction? What choices did we make? Was there something we might have done differently? This is how we get to know our minds better and unravel the many strands of habits we’ve accumulated over our lives.

I know your question was about how to “let go” of anger. At first, you’ll probably find it really hard to do that, and that’s understandable. I have a hard time letting go when I get really angry, too. But we can start by using this process to let go of smaller annoyances – like maybe when someone cuts us off on the highway, for example. And work our way up gradually. Obviously it’s not as simple as “just letting go” to change a habit that we’ve had for years and years. Instead, I like to think of letting go as a lifelong learning process – where we gradually get to know ourselves better, and direct our minds to grow in more positive ways.

Sunada has been teaching online meditation courses with Wildmind since January 2006, and has impressed students with her practical and friendly approach to teaching meditation. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.


Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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Comment from Jose Latour
Time: November 1, 2007, 10:05 am

Of the many wonderful, useful teaching you do through this newsletter, Sunada’s article today is among the finest. Thank you, Sunada, and all of you who sent it our way…just brilliant stuff!

Jose

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Comment from nanbudh
Time: November 11, 2007, 9:29 am

what i feel difficult with the issue of anger is not simply what we feel. Its the ‘other’ too, who is very important. Many of the times one feels justified in one’s anger. When one is taken advantage of or when one is exploited, what should one do?

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 12, 2007, 12:07 pm

Yes, it’s true that anger usually results from someone else’s actions. But is that person really responsible for my anger? I say he is not. He may have done something to trigger my anger, but it was me that became angry. Nobody can make me angry but myself.

And also, keep in mind that if someone says or does something that’s taking advantage of me or exploiting me, then of course I should respond in a way to protect myself! The Buddha certainly did not advocate that we become doormats! So in that sense, we are justified in our desire to protect ourselves. But I wouldn’t say that the kind of anger that leads to hurting, blaming, or holding a grudge against another person is a constructive way to respond to a situation.

Anger, when it’s still in the stage of simple “feeling,” is not anything good or bad. It’s a gut feeling that’s basically an instinctive need to protect ourselves. It’s what we do in response to that gut feeling that can become the angry response you’re talking about. So let’s pick this apart. Let’s say someone physically attacks me. I feel a rumbling in my gut that says I don’t like this. Now I can choose what to do next. I could choose to act out of anger, and strike him back, or silently blame, judge, and stew about him. Or I could do something to protect myself physically, and let my anger go. The latter choice is the one that causes the least amount of harm to all involved. I’m not harming my attacker, and I’m also not allowing myself to be harmed any further, physically or emotionally. Isn’t this the best outcome?

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from nanbudh
Time: November 13, 2007, 11:18 am

i agree, action should take over the negative feeling. One may act out of self-protection which is well. Let me add another aspect. You would definitely know that anger often takes another form( many forms in fact) and that is depression. Not many people realise that often depression is can be just another face of anger. What do you say about that? Exploitation of one, especially when one is aware that one cannot do anything to prevent it, leads to anger and depression. What should one do?

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Comment from Sunada
Time: November 13, 2007, 1:58 pm

Well, depression has the complication that there could be a bio-chemical imbalance in the brain. So of course, if that’s what’s going on one should get medical treatment.

But apart from that, I would say that we could view depression in the same light as anger. Very often we end up creating our worlds by our thoughts and views. Have you noticed how when we’re in a down mood, problems seems much bigger than they really are? Or when we’re angry, things set us off that normally wouldn’t bother us at all? Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to act in ways that perpetuate our experience of the world as supporting that mood. So in that way we perpetuate our depression, anger, or what have you. But if we stop and examine our thoughts and reactions, we might realize that much of our depression is self-created. I know I have a tendency to blame myself or view myself as incapable when I’m feeling depressed. But am I really to blame or incapable? Usually not. When we can start to lift ourselves out of our self-made stories, that’s when we can start to lift ourselves out of depression.

Of course, it’s not anywhere near as easy as it sounds. It’s a slow and gradual process that can take months or years. But it does work, as I can attest to from personal experience.

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Comment from nanbudh
Time: November 13, 2007, 8:27 pm

I agree. You are correct. Depression is lack of energy. There is a phrase in sikhism, ‘charhdi kalaa’, which means ascending spirits. Sikhs of 18th century, while fighting against tyrants would simply constanly remember Guru and leave everything at that and if one were to ask how are you sir? they would reply promptly,’in charhdi kalaa’, which meant i am in ascending spirits.

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Comment from Emily
Time: February 15, 2008, 5:22 pm

Since starting regular practice I have noticed that I harbour a lot of inward anger (in the guise of apathy and numbness). I also had a recent outburst of this anger which became directed at my husband. At the time I recall focusing on my breath and realizing the emotion was anger but not knowing what to do next. I was quite shakey afterwards as I had never experienced this before and would not like to repeat it. My husband was very understanding and the episode eventually led to some positive discussion. Is this “outburst” a common occurance when starting to practice. Any further advice?

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Comment from Sunada
Time: February 18, 2008, 2:31 pm

Hi Emily,
Well, first of all, I wanted to assure you it’s quite common to become more aware of our emotions after starting up a practice. So even though it might feel unpleasant, it’s actually a sign that your practice is having a positive effect. Also, keep in mind that anger is not necessarily “bad.” When we feel angry, it’s usually a sign that somewhere inside, we feel we’ve been treated unfairly, and that part of us is trying to stand up and be heard! So before you push away angry feelings, try staying with them and asking yourself what exactly it is that you’re feeling is unfair. Rather than pushing away our anger or suppressing it, it can be very useful to pay attention to what we’re feeling inside.

What makes anger destructive is when we direct its powerful energy toward someone and do something hurtful (and that someone could be ourselves). As I talk about in this article, we can train ourselves to diffuse our anger by noting when we feel angry, and as best we can to stop and consider our response before we do something hurtful. I know that outbursts can happen instantaneously, and they feel impossible to stop. It sounds as though when this happened for you, you were able to then follow it with a constructive conversation that ended up with a positive result. That’s perfect! It sounds like you learned something from the experience, and you’ve added to your wisdom about how to handle similar situations in the future. You did your best to manage the situation and learn from it, and that is all we need to ask of ourselves. If you have expressed your regret to your husband and he has accepted that, I think you’ve done all you can and there’s nothing to feel bad about whatsoever. The more we practice in this way and learn from our experiences, the better we’ll become at managing our anger in the future.

with metta to you,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from rosalie
Time: May 22, 2008, 7:24 pm

I have had angry outbursts for years. I finally got fed up of lashing out at people when i feel attacked, disrespected etc. I have gone to a pyshiciatrist which has put me on Medidate and Lamictal to control this. I guess i have ADHD according to her. I don’t feel that the meds work because if someone really pushes my buttons i verbally go off like a cannon saying mean things and being mad all the time. It is exhausting. I have read all the “take a deep breath” remedies etc. but for me when I am in the moment I feel like I just can’t control my anger. I don’t know what to do, I feel guilty and my family just uses this against me so i feel helpless and sometimes depressed.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: May 23, 2008, 3:52 pm

Hi Rosalie,
I can hear how painful your situation is for you, and I want to encourage you to not give up on yourself! I know that deeply ingrained lifelong habits are very difficult to change, but they CAN be changed. You mentioned having read about “take a deep breath” remedies, and you imply that you doubt they would work for you because you don”t think you can control your anger. As a first step though, this approach isn’t asking you to repress or push away your anger. Forceful repression or pushing aside, as you probably well know, doesn’t work.

Even though it seems counterintuitive, the idea here is to examine more closely what goes on when our anger arises so we get to know it better. For example, notice how our muscles tighten up, how we feel “hot” inside, and that our world seems to close in on us. And angry thoughts begin to arise. What are those thoughts? You say you feel attacked and disrepected. Is there another possible interpretation of what’s going on? What’s going on for the other person that might be playing into their actions? What else might be feeding into my own anger? Or am I hungry or tired, and therefore more touchy? Is it PMS? That last line of inquiry might suggest ways to take better care of your body, so it can support your efforts rather than work against you. All of this type of questioning can go in countless different useful directions.

So we use our mindfulness not as a method of controlling our anger, which as you say, feels impossible. We take our first steps by using mindfulness to UNDERSTAND our anger, to see underneath the surface of what’s happening so that we might start to find ways to stop feeding into it. And as with all things, when we stop feeding it, it will naturally pass away. At first it will feel very painful to look inside our own heads and hearts at our own anger. But this is realistically the only way that we can begin to change longstanding habits. Gradually, bit by bit, we can start to unravel the tangle of habits we’ve accumulated over our entire lifetime.

I think the most important thing of all, is to remember to be kind and patient to yourself. Again, I know this can feel incredibly difficult. But you do have the power within you to change. It will take time and patience, but you can do it.

Best wishes to you,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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Comment from june
Time: August 31, 2008, 9:40 pm

i get very angry when my neighbor is playing his car music so loud that the beat comes into my house…. am i being unreasonable… it makes me so crazy i yell and bang the window.. my husband talked to him about it and he said if i just came out and told him to lower it, he would.. but actually since i took the unreasonable action he has been pretty quiet — lol

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Comment from Sunada
Time: September 1, 2008, 3:13 pm

Dear June,

No, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to feel angry when your neighbor plays his music so loud that it disturbs you. But let me ask you a few questions. How can your neighbor know that it’s disturbing you unless you speak to him? What did it accomplish for you to yell and bang the window? I suppose it felt good in the moment to release all that anger, but what did it accomplish in the end?

I know that anger can feel like a huge wave of unstoppable energy that sweeps us away. How about thinking in advance, when you’re not angry, about ways that you can disperse that energy next time it comes up (that won’t hurt anyone)? For example, could you go outside and go for a run? That sort of thing. We look for ways to channel our energy in ways that doesn’t harm anybody. Especially not yourself. Keep in mind that when we allow ourselves to act on our anger, we are reinforcing our angry habits and only making it harder for ourselves in the long run.

Then, after we’ve cooled down a little bit, we can think about some constructive ways to deal with the situation. For example, like what your husband did, you could speak to your neighbor and politely ask him if he could play his music more quietly. A lot of people are perfectly willing to cooperate if you ask them politely. In fact, it sounds like this neighbor is exactly the kind of person. Doesn’t talking to him seem like a simple solution to the problem?

As I said in my article above, angry responses are habits. I know that habits are hard to change, but they can be changed. You do have the power within yourself to do it. I encourage you start taking small steps in a new direction — because change can only happen with an accumulation of many small steps.

Best wishes,
Sunada
http://www.mindfulpurpose.com

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